In an unremarkable corner of an unremarkable cemetery lies an unremarkable grave. Its dull grey stone is mottled by yellow and green lichen while a scatter of brown leaves, rigid and decaying, surround it like a wreath.

One solitary word — “Resting” — constitutes the entirety of an unassuming inscription which has been weathered into partial oblivion. The expanse of grey beneath this single word is untouched, a blank slate hinting at a story untold. If this headstone were truly to capture the life and career of the footballing pioneer lying beneath, it would need to be considerably more eloquent: this is the final resting place of Andrew Watson, a true sporting trailblazer who, having been born in Georgetown, British Guiana, to a wealthy plantation owner, became the world’s first black footballer and international, notably captaining Scotland in a 6-1 rout of England at the Oval in March 1881 — a result which remains the country’s heaviest ever home defeat. 

Watson, described by the Scottish Football Association Annual of 1880-81 as “one of the very best backs we have”, represented two of the 19th century’s most prestigious clubs in Queen’s Park and Corinthians, forging a successful career on both sides of the border as he won multiple domestic trophies and attracted widespread admiration for his robust but proficient style of play. Yet until only recently, Watson’s story had been allowed to fade into history’s murky depths, obscured by supposition and inaccuracy.

Even the official record was faulty. In November 2012, a decade after researchers at the Scottish Football Museum first unearthed photos of a mysterious man who contradicted the widely held opinion that Preston’s Arthur Wharton was football’s first black player, Watson was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. But even on this auspicious occasion both the dates of his birth and death were incorrect, substantially so in the case of the latter.

The unchallenged assumption was once that Watson met his demise in Australia in 1902. But this unremarkable grave for a remarkable man is not located in Richmond, South Australia, or Richmond, Victoria, but in Richmond, west London, and the date of death marked on its headstone is 8 March 1921. Only this year were the true details of Watson’s later life and death established and as a consequence football’s historical record has been lacking an accurate and detailed account of the life and career of one of its more impressive individuals; an epitaph that extends to more than just one little word.

Andrew Watson was born on 24 May 1856 in the Demerara region of what was once British Guiana but is now known simply as Guyana, a country Caribbean by allegiance but nestled between Venezuela and Suriname at the northern tip of the South American continent. His father, Peter Miller Watson, was a sugar planter and a wealthy middle-class Scot; his mother is believed to have been a local black woman called Anna, or Hannah, Rose.

Watson moved to England as a young child, received a scholarly education as a boarder at the Free Grammar School in Halifax, West Yorkshire, from August 1866 and then attended King’s College School in London until 1874. He matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1875 but left his studies shortly afterwards and began playing for a club named Parkgrove. It was here that football’s first black player began to forge his career in the senior game.

Tactics were still at a rather rudimentary stage at the beginning of the 1880s and the formations of the time were heavily loaded towards attack — with seven or eight forwards in one team. Watson, though, was becoming known as a formidable back, a more exclusive position which, according to the Scottish Football Association Annual of 1885-86, demanded “clever tacklers, [who are] able to kick with either foot, and take the earliest opportunity of retarding the progress of a dribbler.” Watson, wrote DD Bone in his Scottish Football Reminiscences and Sketches of 1890, was “famed for his fine tackling and neat kicking. He had one fault, however, and this consisted in kicking over his own lines occasionally when hard pressed by a dashing forward.”

As well as establishing a reputation as a player of promise, Watson also assisted the club’s growth off the field. This apprentice mechanical engineer was a man of means thanks to his father’s wealth and exercised his financial muscle to Parkgrove’s benefit. Bone added, “Mr Watson did a great deal for football in the Glasgow district a dozen years ago, both with his ready purse and personal ability in the game. It was in great measure owing to his interest and energy that the young Parkgrove Club obtained proper ground, and was fairly put on its way rejoicing.”

Significantly, on 6 April 1880, the 23-year-old Watson had the honour of being recruited by the great Scottish team of the age: the famous Queen’s Park. Formed in 1867, Queen’s Park were Scotland’s first Association Football team and became innovators of an early passing game at a time when many clubs relied on the less subtle strategy of charging. Such was their superiority, and the dearth of quality opponents, that the Glasgow club went unbeaten for the first seven years of their existence, without so much as conceding a goal. 

Queen’s Park had already won four Scottish Cups prior to Watson’s arrival and the new recruit helped to expand the club’s trophy collection almost immediately. After being described by the Glasgow Herald of April 26 as “very clever when on the ball” following a Glasgow Charity Cup tie against Vale of Leven, Watson was a member of the team that defeated Rangers 2-1 in the final on May 13. 

His progress at Scotland’s premier club was duly noted.  In the SFA Annual of 1880-81 it says of Watson that, “since joining the Queen’s Park [he] has made rapid strides to the front as a player; has great speed, and tackles splendidly; powerful and sure kick; well worthy of a place in any representative team.”

Indeed he was. Having represented Glasgow as a Parkgrove player in 1880, Watson was selected again at Queen’s Park, turning out for the city in a 9-1 win over Lancashire and a 3-0 win over Sheffield, both in 1881. Though he was absent a year later, Watson’s talent cast a shadow over proceedings. As Richard Robinson’s History of the Queen’s Park Football Club, 1867-1917, published in 1920, details: “Rather a peculiar incident occurred at the Sheffield v Glasgow match, played at Sheffield in February, 1882. Walter Arnott, then connected with Pollokshields Athletic, complained to the association that its vice, or acting, president, Mr John Wallace, had stated publicly in the smoking room of the hotel at Sheffield, where the team had their headquarters, that had Mr A Watson, of Queen’s Park, been present to play at Sheffield, he [Wallace] would have drugged Arnott, thereby rendering him unable to play.”

Meanwhile, Watson’s club career was proceeding nicely and in 1881 he won the first of three Scottish Cups — playing “admirably”, according to the Glasgow Herald — as Queen’s Park defeated Dumbarton 3-1 in the final. Queen’s Park also recorded another Glasgow Charity Cup win — beating Rangers 3-1— and the 1880-81 campaign became a rather remarkable one as the club’s first, second and third teams all went unbeaten across 63 games in total, scoring 281 goals and conceding only 44.

In 1882 Queen’s Park won the Scottish Cup again. A 2-2 draw against Dumbarton in the final of March 20 had been a close-run thing — “had it not been for [Watson’s] steady play, the result might have been disastrous for the Queen’s Park,” wrote the Glasgow Herald — but a 4-1 win in the replay in front of a then record crowd of 15,000 at Glasgow’s Cathkin Park was navigated rather more easily. In a quaint aside, as recorded by Robinson in his History of the Queen’s Park, “The teams, it is well to add, had tea together in the Atholl Arms, where song and sentiment prevailed until train hour.”

Watson had become a key player for Scotland’s pre-eminent club and international recognition was unsurprisingly  forthcoming. The British Guiana-born defender made history when he strolled out for Scotland against England at Kennington Oval on March 12 1881: football had its first black international player — and a captain to boot — as Scotland hammered England 6-1 to inflict a terrible defeat on football’s birthplace. Intriguingly, Watson’s skin colour is not a matter for contemporary comment — nor was it at any other stage of his career. A report in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph merely commends him for having “cleverly tackled” an opponent in a match that “proved unmistakably the superiority of the Scotsmen at the dribbling game” — a style of play pioneered by Queen’s Park. 

Only two caps followed — a 5-1 win over Wales two days later in Wrexham and a 5-1 home win over England in 1882 — as a promising, and indeed historic international career was quickly curtailed when Watson moved south to London, with only Scotland-based players under consideration for the national team.

Watson joined London Swifts and on New Year’s Day, 1883, helped his new club become the first team to defeat Queen’s Park in Scotland. It was at Swifts where Watson became the first black man to play in the FA Cup, though given he was blessed with sufficient financial resources, the full-back was able to make frequent trips north of the border and was in the Queen’s Park side which defeated Third Lanark by a record margin of 8-0 in the Glasgow Charity Cup final of May 1884.

Notably, Watson’s exploits with London Swifts, and Queen’s Park before that, had brought him to the attention of the prestigious Corinthians, who in an era of nascent professionalism were boldly and proudly clinging to their amateur status. Being from a wealthy background, Watson had no need to chase professional wages. Indeed, the very notion of being paid to play football was regarded by many at the time as a morally bankrupt enterprise. The SFA Annual of 1885-86 describes how “this [professionalism] has been the all-engrossing subject of the season, and it has engaged more time and attention than any other matter ever before required from the committee. Mr M’Killop, our esteemed president, in particular has laboured indefatigably to have this evil suppressed in England, and to prevent it getting a resting place in our midst.” 

Though their mutual stand against professionalism ultimately ensured the two clubs would become anachronisms, sliding into obscurity as money poured into the game, Queen’s Park and Corinthians were two enthusiastic standard-bearers in this doomed moral crusade. In the 1880s at least, amateurism was a viable and noble stance. Robinson’s History of the Queen’s Park lauds Corinthians as “a brilliant galaxy of talent, all men who have gained high honours in the game, and whose sole aim and ambition were to bring out all that is good and healthy in a pastime they followed for the love of it. Similar sentiments have always actuated the Queen’s Park since its very foundation, its ambition being to keep the game unsullied, and its own reputation as pure and clean as the driven snow, and with success. It here met with kindred spirits … the name of the club is even at the present day [1920] a household word for all that is chivalrous, clean, upright, and true in the civilised world of sport.”

Watson’s finest achievement with this proud band of Corinthian amateurs came in the 1884-85 season when they destroyed Blackburn Rovers 8-1 in the FA Cup. But the pull of Glasgow, where his two children were living following the death of his first wife, Jessie, remained strong, and in 1886 Watson was back with Queen’s Park, winning the Scottish Cup for the third time with a 3-1 defeat of Renton in February. “A great game it was,” wrote the Glasgow Herald, “witnessed by 10,000, on a wet and disagreeable afternoon.”

A new season required Watson to show an element of tactical flexibility as he slotted into an experimental formation that utilised an increased quota of three half-backs. Though the man trained as a full-back had been used in a more advanced position as early as 1880, this positional tweak was geared towards a more progressive approach from Queen’s Park. Clearly it required some adjustment as they were beaten heavily when facing Preston at the start of the campaign. According to Robinson, “the result was so disastrous—a 6-1 defeat—that the Scots at once reverted to the old formation”. Still, the fact Watson had been earmarked for the role spoke volumes as to his all-round ability.

The SFA Annual of 1885-86 deconstructs the half-back position: “Of all the players in the field, the half-back is, perhaps, the most relied upon. His judgement must be perfection itself, and no amount of assumed tactics by the opposing forwards should take him by surprise, or allure him to forget his position. He is, so to speak, a back and a forward combined in one … A clever half-back is, in fine, the most dangerous man to meet on the field. The position is a most responsible one, and many of the finest players in England and Scotland have chosen that position in preference to any other.”

The 1886-87 season was to prove his last in Scotland. In 1887, Watson moved to Merseyside following his second marriage, to Eliza Kate Tyler. He was recruited to play for Bootle FC and became a favourite of the local supporters. In 1888, reporting on an FA Cup fifth-round tie against the Old Carthusians, the Liverpool Mercury records that: “the Bootle team entered the famous enclosure amid hearty cheers, their full-back Andy Watson being recognised by many of the Surrey supporters as a once-famed Corinthian and Swift.”

In further dispatches, the Mercury praises Watson for his “peculiarly cool style”, his “magnificent defence” and most notably, in February 1888, for “a ‘Watsonian kick’”, suggesting that the boy born in British Guiana had constructed a formidable identity for himself in both England and Scotland — the two countries that drove the game’s development in its formative decades. He had become a player of real substance and quality, and a pioneer, if now rather obscure, for the black footballers who would follow him.

Writing in The Story of Association Football in 1926, JAH Catton — a renowned sports journalist who wrote under the pen name of ‘Tityrus’ for the Athletic News and was a dedicated observer of games between Scotland and England — even named Watson at full-back in his all-time Scotland team, despite the fact he won only three caps. “It would be folly to expect everyone to agree with such a choice,” Catton wrote of his XI, “but I have taken men as effective players of a ball and as schemers.”

A revered three-time Scottish Cup winner and international captain, Watson had carved out his place in football’s history; having done so as a man of mixed race, he has a strong claim to being one of the most important figures in the early decades of the game.  Yet even in his own time, his legend faded.

Following the conclusion of his playing career, Watson moved to Surrey and died there of pneumonia and cardiac arrest at his home in Kew on 8 March 1921 at the age of 64, his occupation simply stated as marine engineer. Watson’s humble grave is even less voluble about the life and career of this remarkable footballer. He surely deserves a richer eulogy.

This article appeared on Episode Eighty Eight of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.